Saturday, October 26, 2013

Memories from Dad's - Soldiers in my Cup

Checking out at the grocery store when I was buying stuff for Dad, I noticed a lot of things hanging near the register to invite a last minute purchase. Chocolate, gum, breath mints for dogs (What the. . .?).  There was also candy and a few small toys (hey, how did this box of Dots end up in my cart?)  But there were none of those packs of toys that would hang off the pegs at Mom and Pop groceries stores when I was a little kid back in the late 60's. Sure, stores now have a whole AISLE devoted to toys, but when I was little you were pretty much limited to the gumball machine, the lame "bucking" horse you could ride for some change or those those small finds of toys hanging there to lure you.

Green plastic army men were a perennial favorite. My older brothers had to order them from the back of comic books when they first came out. Originally introduced in the 1950's by Marx, they would order them from brightly colored ads in the back of the comic books. When I started collecting mine from the rack at the grocers they had hardly changed in design. I bet any one of us, whether we are 60 or 50 or 38 and holding could remember "crawling guy", "throwing the grenade guy"," minesweeper guy", and "bazooka guy", all in the classic cardinal green army style.

I enjoyed getting mine at the store but I envied Big Bro who got his hundreds of plastic soldiers delivered in a real footlocker (genuine U.S. made cardboard). Our dad's generation had to be content with conducting warfare with hobby shop metal soldiers which were purchased in limited numbers due to the price. We, the product of the consumer friendly late 60's and early 70's, could buy whole legions of little men to command. There were so many you didn't have to worry about losing one or two to the dog (he's got me Frank! Arghhhhh) or leaving one behind enemy lines when Mom called supper. You always had more. You knew that although there would be a skirmish that involved firecrackers and some Private inevitably losing his head, you had backups. Reliable, dependable.

Unlike most toys now, they were simple. Two to three inches tall, no moving parts, nothing painted or stuck on,but they didn't do real well in heat (Sargent Miller meets Colonel Soldering Gun didn't do so well). But they did hold up well, pretty bullet proof other than that.

Girl toys were OK, but for the cost of some silly Barbie dress I could get a bag of hundreds of soldiers to deploy after school got out for the day. And play we would.

Now it seems you have to push the kids out the door to get them to play outside. Not us, with a coat, some soldiers, and a couple of dogs, we watched carefully for that first break in the snow. We knew the signs that told us spring was almost here, that first slice of spring sun bursting from the sky, opening cold fissures in the landscape. Snow had been fun, but we were tired of the many days of snow, stampeding flurries of twenty below that swirled around the family home with all the spontaneous elegance of a brawl, keeping even the hardiest kid indoors. We couldn't wait to get out in the sun, with the landscape to ourselves. Out where entire wars were fought and domains were challenged, melting snowballs flying from the last remnants of snowy forts, ancient strategies drawn out with mittens on a battle plain of white and green as we gathered our troops around us.
But like most of my generation of the West, we loved to be outdoors. We learned to fish and later to hunt, a continuation of the early childhood games we played, except this time the strategy did not involve small soldiers, but involved steelheads, and the only make believe "counting coup" we did was the "one that got away" stories.

It had been a good battle. We lost some soldiers, yes, but the summer day flowed endlessly. We were immortal, the clouds rushing by faster than our troops could advance. Glorious days. Only the sound of the dinner bell would bring us in, dirty and hungry and aching to be outside again.

Do children even play outside like that any more?

There's a playground which I pass on my way home, small, built at the edge of one of the subdivisions on the south edge of town. I rarely see children in it. Perhaps the kids have all grown up and moved. Perhaps they're indoors. Kids want to play electronic games, videos, TV, all of which capture their attention within the confines of a home. I look at photos of myself as a child and they were most often taken outdoors, we kids lean, muscled. I watch the kids as they leave the bus now that drives them a whole two blocks from school and many are already battling obesity. Young colts hobbled by an electronic rope, too many growing jaded before their time,.

Certainly, as children, we had our indoor activity. There were times when the cold and the rain kept even the range cattle looking for cover and for those days there were trains and books; fun learning about tools with Dad in his wood shop. Dad would set up Lionel trains in the garage and the joy of small plastic action figures would continue, Cowboys and Indians attacking the train, sometimes with some Army soldiers serving in the ranks.
The outdoors made us strong, made us self sufficient and capable. It made us search for something up ahead on that horizon, something we would not find in our room on a computer or on a PlayStation.
Back home recently and digging in Dad's yard to tend tend his vegetable garden for him, I unearthed a tiny plastic soldier, and that tiny battered warrior, recreated a flood of memory of childhood days when my  brother and I played for world dominion out in the back yard. The touch of its small battered form brought back the scent of the earth in our back yard, the shade of the apple tree that sheltered us, the warmth of the sun.

Was this little figurine simply a forgotten toy or was he buried in some forgotten childhood military honor? Like anything long lost, he spoke to me of why we remember things and why they are important. I wrapped his green plastic form carefully in a tissue and brought him home, bringing him back past the eyes of TSA, one last covert mission to bring him home, where yes, games are still played.
Today, after a couple of rain showers, the sun is out, peeking from behind the sky. I've been on this computer long enough. I gather my rain coat and my ball cap, Barkley rushing to join me as we head out into the fields around us. I have no troops with me, simply a black lab and he'll chase me, barking in a game of "take the next hill". The trees watch down on us, like sentient commanders, as the wind blows gently, chilling the skin, sparking my soul. That soul of a solitary soldier, true.


  1. The green army men are made by Tim Mee Toys. The even have a fun Facebook page of their own.

  2. Thanks so much for awakening those wonderful memories of childhood.

  3. Thanks so much for awakening those wonderful memories of childhood.

  4. Ah, the memories that you seem so good at dredging up from the depths of my mind.........childhood.

    Wonderful years, out doors all of the time, no matter what time of year it was. Snow, rain, sun, cold, warm, it made no difference. Hunting, fishing, shooting and just running through the woods at top!

    Thank you.


  5. " Our play burst out of something within our own minds"

    We USED our minds and our imagination, it wasn't 'sculptured' for us by MTV or some game console... And you're right, we could play ALL day and not a single battery was needed. Thankfully my grandson is going outside and really playing, rather than sitting like a lump in front of the computer all day/night. Thanks for the reminder of fond memories!

  6. Little green army guys, matchbox cars, cap guns (and some that shot real, white, plastic bullets). All played with outdoors, where things got dirty.

    Yeah, there weren't as many fat kids back then, partly because we ate healthier, but also because we were outside playing all the time.

    And we all carried knives. It was mostly just a tool, but like most kids, we played with them too. Playing Mumbley peg (though our version was nothing like what Wikipedia describes). Our version started by standing the blade on your little finger and flipping it with at least a full 360 degree spin to make it stick in the ground. If it stuck, you got to go again. If you missed, it's the other person's turn. Work your way through the fingers, up the arm, to the chin and finally off the forehead (or top of the head). First to finish wins. We only played a variety of the "chicken" game when out camping. Boy, we could be dumb! I remember playing it on a 50 mile hike, miles from anywhere. Stupid. But fun.

  7. I finished a book earlier this week by H.G Wells titled "Little Wars"

    It is the story of his and his friends "inventing" a war game with toy soldier, books on the floor for buildings, chalk rivers and ponds marked on the floor.

    I was reminded of you as I read the story and his comments reinforced that reminder.

    Here are excerpts from the story.

    Little Wars (A Game for Boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books)

    It can be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty--and even later if the limbs remain sufficiently supple--by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women.

    Primitive attempts to realize the dream were interrupted by a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors. They regarded the objects upon the floor with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things.

    A bit sexist but makes a point.

  8. The things we did when you were young and the games we played when I was a kid(long before you were thought of) are to rough and tough for the boys ?? and girls?? we are raising today. Remember the games we played were to violent for todays kids. (Wish I could express my self as well as you do).

  9. Aw, you rescued a soldier from the underground bunker! Another mission accomplished.

    Yeah, I would have loved to see the TSA try and take that away from you, wouldn't have been a pretty sight.

    Kids now a days are missing out on a lot of important things, activity is just one of them. It's sad. The older and achy-er I get I still don't regret growing up with all that exercise (that undoubtedly contributed to some of the aches and pains now).

  10. Oh, YEAH! Green Army Men!

    My friends and I would set them up in "forts" made of real wood Lincoln Logs down in my basement, and blast away at them with our BB guns.

    My Dad had made a big target trap so I could shoot during the winter months, and then shortly thereafter, he made a magnetic broom to sweep up the stray BBs so my Mom wouldn't slip/trip on them.

    And the first hint of Spring was when ideas for new antennas would start to take shape in the metal from the drawings I'd been making, and the parts I'd been collecting, all winter long!

  11. Oh, yes. . . kids today, with their electronic toys, really don't know what they are missing. I remember trips downtown when I was just old enough that I can remember them now, the street vendors selling the wind up toys - monkeys playing a drum, horses that "walked". . .the broomstick horses we played with. . . Thanks for bringing those days back to this 60-something lady!!!

  12. Had some greenies bought for me when I got my tonsils out!
    And a pot metal horitzer...
    Later, took those A-shaped pencil erasers, put straight pins in them and made Lunar Excursion Modules!


  13. Switching from toy soldiers to the art of war…
    We were indoctrinated in the safe use and accurate aiming of newly acquired BB guns upon the little green, grey and tan men that just the summers before we lovingly shot with rubber bands and bombed with dirt clods.
    With adult supervision, we actually held competitions to see who could inflict the most casualties with the fewest shots. Good times, good times.

  14. "Now it seems you have to push the kids out the door to get them to play outside."

    Don't buy them a video game console. Suck it up and be a parent, not a buddy, when they start screaming.

    Buy them clothes suitable for all kinds of weather that they can get dirty in and have them put them on when they get home instead of wearing the same clothes all day.

    Don't freak out when said clothes (and their wearers) come home filthy, wet and torn. Wash them, sew them up or patch them and be glad that your kids are doing the kinds of things that got them dirty and torn to begin with. You might want to get some professional attention if it's the wearer that needs the sewing - but I have a scar to this day that my Mom sewed up.

    Get involved in activities with them that take place in the outdoors. Activities that consist of you sitting or standing and watching while your child engages in all the actual activity don't count.

  15. BB guns were part of my childhood. My mom drew the line when we got to the point that kid A threw a pie pan up in the air over his head and kid B tried to shoot it.

  16. That little toy soldier might make a great Christmas tree ornament.

  17. Thanks for the memories! Except for the bit about the firecrackers and soldering iron, that could have been me and my brothers and friends.
    It isn't just video games, although they are a big factor, every other aspect of childhood has become uber-supervised and regulated and measured and ruled. Children have gotten the full Little League Treatment. When you had a brother or a sister or two, your mom, even if she was a professional mother couldn't watch your every move as now, when you're an only child.

    When Legos LEGOS! come with assembly instructions you know you're doing it wrong.

  18. The little green army men always remind me of firecrackers. We'd use them as aerial bombs, "grenades", mines, all sorts of mischief. Of course, that may also explain some of the hearing loss..:) Oh, the fun we had! Yes, pocket kinves and small cuts, BB guns, all-day bike rides, tree climbing, rope swinging... I'm so glad my loving wife went along with my idea to get out of town and let our sons PLAY!


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